Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has defended demonetization. Photo: Reuters
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's strategy mystifies economists on both the left and the right. Photo: Reuters

A striking aspect of the 24% decline in India’s GDP in the first quarter of 2020-21 compared with the previous fiscal year’s first quarter is the decline by 10.3% in public administration, defense, and other public services. This is a sector where the gross domestic product is estimated not by the “output” of the sector but by the government expenditure incurred under these headings.

The decline in the GDP originating in this sector therefore means a decline in public expenditure. This is surprising for two reasons: first, it shows that government expenditure, instead of being “counter-contractionary,” has been “pro-contractionary”; second, during the lockdown caused by the pandemic, one would expect government spending on health care to go up, and thereby raise the overall government expenditure, instead of the fall we are actually observing.

When there is a lockdown, and output contracts, it is incumbent on the government to increase its expenditure. The rise in expenditure reduces the degree of contraction; and it puts purchasing power in the hands of the people so that many of them can maintain their consumption without getting into debt.

Even if the government is too timid to increase its expenditure, at least it must maintain its expenditure to limit the contraction in GDP; but a fall in government expenditure during the period of a lockdown, which accentuates the overall contraction, is just the opposite of what the government should have done.

True, in such a period, there is a fall in government revenue; but to reduce government spending because of this, so that the fiscal deficit does not increase, is the height of folly. It worsens the contraction of the economy and greatly increases the sufferings of the people. This, however, is exactly what Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has done.

What is more, the Modi government is persisting with this folly. Some may find this accusation strange, since on the very first day of Parliament the government came out with a supplementary demand equivalent to around US$32 billion, which, it may be thought, represents substantial additional expenditure.

But this impression is wrong. These supplementary demands are meant to cover the expenditure that the government had already announced earlier to cope with the pandemic, which was over and above the budgetary provisions.

This already-announced expenditure, we know, was quite trivial, amounting altogether to no more than about 1% of GDP. True, these supplementary demands will revive India’s flagship program for rural employment under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act of 2005. This program had come to a virtual standstill because of lack of funds, but this revival will only entail what has already been promised, not any further expansion.

This 1% of GDP being earmarked for relief during the pandemic is about the lowest among all the major economies of the world. In the US even President Donald Trump announced a relief package amounting to 12% of GDP; in Germany, it was 5%, and in Japan even more. The Modi government’s stinginess is astounding, and that too at a time when deaths from hunger are being reported from various parts of the country, despite ample food stocks.

This stinginess goes against the almost universal agreement among economists in the country, cutting across ideological lines, on the need for larger government spending. In fact, there has rarely been as much agreement among economists as on this issue. True, there was equally broad agreement among them against demonetization, but that was a specific measure, no doubt of amazing thoughtlessness; it did not, however, represent a policy direction.

The ideological differences among economists on the current issue relate to two points: what should be the areas where additional expenditure should be undertaken; and how this additional government expenditure should be financed.

On the first point, while the left-wing position would be that such expenditure must entail a universal cash transfer to every non-income-tax-paying household, apart from covering investment on infrastructure, including social infrastructure like health care, the orthodox economists would only emphasize investment on physical infrastructure.

With regard to the second point, immediately, of course, the additional expenditure has to be financed by a fiscal deficit, in which borrowings from the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) will have to be the main source.

Indeed, many economists believe that the central government can and should spend approximately an additional $136 billion over and above what was budgeted earlier this year, and finance it immediately by enlarging the fiscal deficit to about 9% of the GDP compared with the 3.5% that was targeted in the budget. But as the economy recovers, measures of additional resource mobilization will have to be undertaken to bring down the fiscal deficit.

Here the left-wing position emphasizes wealth taxation, which is virtually non-existent in India, as the means of doing so, while orthodox economists talk of the need to sell public-sector assets, including land that is in the possession of public enterprises.

The difference between these two positions is quite basic and needs to be understood clearly.

A fiscal deficit entails borrowing by the government that puts claims upon the government in the hands of the private sector (we are assuming that foreign borrowings do not increase), and since these claims accrue to that segment of society that undertakes savings, a fiscal deficit increases the magnitude of wealth in the hands of the rich. If the fiscal deficit is eliminated by additional resources mobilized through the imposition of a wealth tax, then private wealth remains where it was before the deficit-financed spending occurred.

Wealth taxation, in short, does not bring down existing wealth inequalities; it only prevents a further accentuation of such inequalities through a larger fiscal deficit. The left-wing proposal, therefore, amounts to increasing government expenditure without increasing wealth inequalities.

By contrast, the orthodox proposal, such as the one put forward by Raghuram Rajan, former governor of the RBI, does not eliminate the increase in wealth inequalities caused by a larger fiscal deficit; by transferring physical assets – land or equity – it only substitutes in the hands of the rich physical assets (land) or ownership (equity) of public-sector banks or of public-sector enterprises, instead of claims upon the government.

It basically changes the composition of the wealth in the hands of the rich, but does not negate its enhanced magnitude.

Notwithstanding these basic differences, however, there would be broad agreement among economists of different hues on the need for larger government expenditure to prevent the economy from getting into a deep and prolonged recession. But the government remains unmoved, for reasons that are not obvious.

Raghuram Rajan appealed to the bureaucrats in the government to wake up to the seriousness of the situation. But bureaucrats hardly determine policy within the Modi regime; it is the prime minister and his coterie who determine every policy, including economic policy.

If the government’s utter indifference to the disaster that awaits the economy is to be explained, if its unconcern about the massive unemployment that faces the people (which some have estimated to entail the loss of an additional 122 million jobs by the end of April) is to be understood, then it is to the Modi mindset that we must turn. And here we find a combination of supreme naïveté with supreme confidence.

The naïveté consists of imbibing some absurd propositions from a particularly outdated version of bourgeois economics. Modi’s repeatedly calling big capitalists the “wealth creators” is an example of this. He has been told, and he believes, that these “wealth creators” will sooner or later undertake adequate investment to get the economy out of the problem it is facing.

On this thinking there are no crises but occasional blips; the “wealth creators” are always there to usher in a new boom if for some reason the economy loses steam. The fact that the Great Depression of the inter-war years lasted almost a decade and might have continued but for the intervention of World War II does not figure in this thinking, which misses completely the dependence of investment on the state of demand.

The confidence consists in the belief that no matter how impoverished the people are, no matter how extreme the hardships they face, their electoral support can always be won by promoting Hindutva and effecting a communal polarization. It is an utterly cynical view, but then, the present dispensation represents the acme of cynicism.

This article was produced by Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute, which provided it to Asia Times.

Prabhat Patnaik

Prabhat Patnaik is an Indian political economist and political commentator.